And now Israel, what does G‑d ask of you . . . (Deuteronomy 10:12)

Among the chassidim of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was a learned and wealthy man. An accomplished Torah scholar and chassidic thinker, he served the Almighty devotedly and gave generously to charity. In his younger years, this chassid had been a distinguished student in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s first cheder.1

But then it came to pass that this chassid lost his entire fortune, G‑d forbid, and went heavily into debt. Furthermore, he had several poorer relations to whom he had promised to provide dowries and wedding expenses. Their marriage dates were now approaching, and he saw no way in which he could make good on his promises. Marriage arrangements had already been made for two of his own daughters, and even here he would be unable to meet his obligations.

He came to see Rabbi Schneur Zalman in Liozna, and poured out his heart with much weeping and with deep and genuine pain. If G‑d has chosen to afflict me with poverty, he said, I accept the divine judgement. But how can I be reconciled with the fact that I cannot repay my debts? That I am unable to keep my word concerning the marriages of my relations and daughters? I had made these promises when I still had the means, and thus, according to the Torah, I was fully justified in making them. But if I fail to keep my word, it will be a terrible chillul Hashem.2 Why, wept the chassid, is the Almighty punishing me so severely, by causing me to commit the terrible sin of desecrating His holy name? I beg you, Rebbe, please intercede on my behalf to arouse the heavenly mercy upon me, that I be able to meet my obligations. Aside from this, I accept all that has been decreed. “Rebbe,” he concluded, “I must give my relatives what I have promised! I must give my daughters what I have promised!”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman sat with his head in his arms in a deep state of deveikut (meditative attachment to G‑d). In this manner he listened to the chassid’s tearful pleas. After a long while, Rabbi Schneur Zalman lifted his head and said with great feeling: “You speak of all that you need. But you say nothing of what you are needed for . . .”

Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s words pierced the innermost point of the chassid’s heart, and he fell, full length, in a dead faint. The rebbe’s servant, Reb Zalman, who stood in the doorway, called two chassidim who were in the rebbe’s anteroom. Together they carried the chassid out of the rebbe’s room, poured water over him, and finally managed to revive him.

When the chassid opened his eyes, he didn’t say anything to anyone. He simply applied himself to the study of Torah and the service of prayer with renewed life, and with such devotion and diligence that he forgot all else. Although he spoke to no one and fasted every day, he was in a perpetual state of joy.

On the second Shabbat of the chassid’s stay in Liozna, the Rebbe spoke on the subject of tohu and tikkun. Tohu (“chaos”) is an earlier stage and order of creation, in which the flow of G‑d’s involvement and presence was so intense that the created reality was unable to receive and digest it. The definitions of existence simply melted down before this overwhelming dose of G‑dliness. In the terminology of the Kabbalah, it was an existence of “much light and scant containers.”

Then G‑d created our present existence, the world of tikkun (“correction”). Here, the opposite is true: we live in a world of “broad containers and little light.” Our world is indeed a most formidable “container” which holds its own before the divine light. It is a world which defines, limits and screens the infinite emanations from its Creator. But as a result, ours is a dark world, a world which conceals, shrouds and distorts the reality of G‑d.

The purpose of life, said Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is to bring together the best of both worlds—to fill the broad containers of tikkun with the immense light of tohu. This is achieved by serving the Almighty through one’s involvement in the world. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “He did not create it for chaos; He formed it that it be settled.”3

On the following Monday, Rabbi Schneur Zalman summoned the once-wealthy chassid, blessed him with success, and told him to return to his home and business. In time the chassid regained his wealth, made good on his debts and promises, married off his daughters, and resumed his philanthropy on an even more generous level than before.